The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue

RF. Alvarez: Eros

Installation view: <em>RF. Alvarez: Eros</em>, Alanna Miller, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Alanna Miller. Photo: Daniel Greer.
Installation view: RF. Alvarez: Eros, Alanna Miller, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Alanna Miller. Photo: Daniel Greer.

On View
Alanna Miller
May 12–June 24, 2023
New York

For Eros, his first solo show with Alanna Miller, Texas-based artist RF. Alvarez reflects on the evolving notion of home. Eros unfolds like a day in the artist’s life, or perhaps many days blended together. The richly colored narrative paintings (all 2023) are based on memories of fleeting moments, as well as photographs of the life Alvarez has built with his husband in Austin. The viewer is offered an intimate look at the people and experiences that comprise their home. Some scenes are linked by references to time and place, such as Before Dinner (2023) and the subsequent paintings of that meal, but the artist intentionally blurs chronology, creating a dreamy story that reflects the ephemerality of time and memory.

Constant throughout the show are the queer safe spaces Alvarez has made with his husband and friends, spaces where binaries melt and sexuality is fluid and celebrated. In each painting, Alvarez holds onto candid moments, treating big dinner parties with the same attention as fleeting light that washes over empty rooms and glimpses of his husband waking in the morning. All of these contribute to a sense of home that is not tied to place. There is safety and comfort in the welcoming spaces themselves as well as in the friends and family who fill them.

RF. Alvarez, <em>Dinner With The Phaeacians</em>, 2023. Acrylic on raw linen, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist and Alanna Miller. Photo: Daniel Greer.
RF. Alvarez, Dinner With The Phaeacians, 2023. Acrylic on raw linen, 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist and Alanna Miller. Photo: Daniel Greer.

The exhibition title references the Greek god of carnal love and sets the tone for a celebration of mythology, queer culture, and art history. In Dinner with the Phaeacians (2023), the artist alludes to the story of the Odyssey and the Phaeacians of the island of Scheria, the last stop on Odysseus’s decade-long journey home to Penelope, his beloved wife in Ithaca. Alvarez’s own story parallels that of Odysseus: the artist left Texas as a teen and returned years later, pulled back after finding love—for himself, his husband, and the state itself.

Borrowing elements from the Baroque, in particular the work of Caravaggio, the dimly lit dinner party features a row of candles placed along the table that casts a yellow glow, contrasting the deep darkness of the background with a chiaroscuro technique. Drawing the viewer’s attention, the strong light highlights the figures’ faces and makes their interactions the focus of the work. The diagonal orientation of the table and figures further recalls Baroque paintings that use similar arrangements of objects and bodies to position the viewer in the height of the action, as if they are a part of the work. Two people stand at the head of the table and glance along the diagonal with their arms slightly raised, perhaps a reference to Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (1600). A similar diagonal view is seen in the painting that lends its name to the exhibition, Eros. Here, intertwined nude bodies are seen from below, offering a vantage point that is intimate, personal, and places the viewer inside the action. Indeed, throughout the show, Alvarez considers the perspective of the viewer, inviting them into his safe spaces.

Even the dark colors punctuated with a pop of red in the far figure’s shirt in Dinner with the Phaeacians recall the palette of Caravaggio, who often used the dramatic hue to heighten emotion (the red drapes and spurts of blood in Judith Beheading Holofernes [ca. 1599]) and draw attention to specific figures (Jesus’s shirt as he reveals his identity in The Supper at Emmaus [1601]). In the case of Alvarez’s work, the figure in red and bathed in a warm glow is the artist himself. The focal point of the work, Alvarez steals a tender moment with his husband, putting queer love on full view within the welcoming community and home.

In other works, Alvarez references Dutch vanitas paintings to allude to the passage of time and inevitability of death. In Galley to Ithaca (2023), he forgoes the classic vanitas symbol of a skull in his arrangement of items on a dresser but does include nearly melted candles and orange peels as images of decay. The artist adds to these more personal items of self-preservation, such as medication, and a cowboy hat symbolic of masculinity. Identified as having belonged to his grandfather in another work, the hat carries the weight of the artist’s family and heritage. A stack of books—poems by Rilke and a history of Greek sculpture—props up an iced coffee, serving in a way as a self-portrait of the artist, his interests, and the historic figures that influence him. Alvarez further alludes to Odysseus in the work’s title, referencing his home of Ithaca. Socks and underwear hanging precariously on the dresser suggest their removal in haste, perhaps evidence of an intimate moment that came and went.

RF. Alvarez,<em> Galley to Ithaca</em>, 2023. Acrylic on raw linen, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Alanna Miller. Photo: Daniel Greer.
RF. Alvarez, Galley to Ithaca, 2023. Acrylic on raw linen, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Alanna Miller. Photo: Daniel Greer.

The passage of time is further revealed in The Home We Share (2023). A small work at just 9-by-12 inches, the painting depicts the same room and table seen in Dinner with the Phaeacians. Without the people, plates, glasses, or candles, the dinner party fades into memory, but the safe space remains. Now filled with a warm blue glow, the table acts as a placeholder for the future parties and further memories to be made and lost.

Emblematic of the fluid notion of home is Tender is The Night (2023), another dinner party, this time outdoors and illuminated by candles and a string of lights. Set for four, the table has an empty seat. The group could be anywhere; their home is not tied to a time or place, but rather to the people with whom they share the moment. It’s this ambiguity that unites the parallel chronologies and references in the show. Alvarez imagines his story in different periods in history, expanding the concept of community to the people and places whose journeys have come before and leaving room for those yet to experience their own. Maybe it’s for this reason that the fourth seat at the table is empty, so any viewer looking for a sense of home can join whenever or wherever they’re ready.


Annabel Keenan

Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer specializing in contemporary art and sustainability. Her work has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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